By Luke L Marshall
Blue Ridge ArtSpace, formerly known as the Watauga County Arts Council, is a truly bustling art space. Stop by any day of the week and you will find people of all ages as they come together to enjoy all forms of art, from music lessons to knitting. As I spoke to Mrs. Cherry Johnson, the executive director for Blue Ridge ArtSpace, the distinctive ring of the front door opening is constant as people are in and out of the building. Mrs. Johnson best described what Blue Ridge ArtSpace is:
“It is a community center. We do business as Blue Ridge ArtSpace because we want people to understand something. When people hear Arts Council, they don’t always understand what it is,” Mrs. Johnson said. “But when they hear ArtSpace we hope they understand that this is a place I can be a part of. This is what we want to communicate to the community is that this is a place for you.”
From what I’ve seen in my visits, Mrs. Johnson is right. Blue Ridge ArtSpace is truly a community arts center and people can become involved in several ways.
Blue Ridge ArtSpace offers lessons for people of all ages in guitar, violin, vocals, painting, and drawing. It also hosts a vast array of art for sale by local artists throughout the building. The first time I visited the halls were filled with art from the local high school students that was incredibly impressive. Groups regularly use the building for group meetings like Yarn Circle, Banjo Buddies, and High-Country Writers. Mrs. Johnson says the simplest way to get involved at Blue Ridge ArtSpace is to just show up. Members of the community can attend galleries, come in and buy local art, and buy locally-made items from the gift shop. Local artists are strongly encouraged to become members and bring their art, which can be sold in the gallery or gift shop. The gift shop offers items like jewelry, clothing, home decor, and ceramics that are all locally made.
One of the main sources of how Blue Ridge ArtSpace stays active is through percentages made from sales of art, percentages of art and music lessons, and a percentage of the gift shop sales.
“If you look into our books you will see this is one of the most frugal and financially tight organizations,” Mrs. Johnson said. “They are very careful with every penny they spend and for a good reason. I can say with complete confidence that everything is pumped right back into the organization.”
People who use the building for gatherings like Yarn Circle, Banjo Buddies and High-Country Writers usually put donations in a jar that goes towards paying the bills.
Another big avenue of funding for Blue Ridge ArtSpace comes from donors, memberships, gifts, fundraising, grants, and allocations from the county. Becoming a member is easy: you can do it online or in-person at Blue Ridge ArtSpace. Individual memberships are only $35 annually and family memberships are only $50 annually and memberships come with a number of benefits. Depending on the membership level, members can receive benefits like discounts at the gift shop all the way up to special access to private galleries. Blue Ridge ArtSpace also hosts multiple art-related workshops, which are advertised on their webpage.
Mrs. Johnson makes sure to show her appreciation for the donors since they are a big part of keeping Blue Ridge ArtSpace running. She couldn’t mention individual donors as most like to keep their names private, but she did mention consistent business donors. New River Building supply was essential in renovating the building that would become Blue Ridge ArtSpace by donating supplies. More recently they helped in the replacement of all the windows in the facility. Mrs. Johnson also mentioned Cheap Joe’s Art Stuff owner Joe Miller as being a major donor. Mr. Miller was one of the 10 original founders of the Arts Council and consistently donates towards the monthly gallery expenses.
Blue Ridge ArtSpace is extremely involved in the community and has taken part in the start of many other art-related organizations. Examples include Blue Ridge Community Theatre, Children’s Play House, Mountain Home Music, and the art installations placed throughout downtown. Mrs. Johnson even commenced the popular concerts that are still thrown on the lawn of Jones House downtown.
Mrs. Johnson said this about the Arts Councils’ community involvement: “The Arts Council sees a big part of our job as getting somebody going on something and then letting them take it and run with it, and then we start something else and we get that going. It is like spinning a bunch of tops.”
Blue Ridge ArtSpace has given scholarships in the past when they’ve had the money and often gives grants to other organizations in Watauga County. They give grants by request to fund other non-profits in the area that are doing projects related to arts and artists. Most of these are grassroots grants and local schools that are going beyond the usual with their art programs. Blue Ridge ArtSpace is also involved in the Regional Arts Project which is a grant program that gives grants to other non-profits in surrounding counties like Wilkes, Allegheny, and Ashe.
Blue Ridge ArtSpace has a rich history that has led to it being such a successful and influential non-profit. The Watauga County Arts Council was started back in 1981. For 28 years, Mrs. Johnson has been with the Arts Council and plans to retire Aug. 1, 2020, the same day she started all those years ago. The Watauga Arts Councils’ main building for 25 years was the Jones House where Mrs. Johnson worked for 20 of those years.
But in 2012 it was time for the Arts Council to move and Mrs. Johnson found the current location at 377 Shadowline Drive. The name Blue Ridge ArtSpace came from a trial run in 2004 and 2005 that took place in the space that is now Lost Province Brewing Company. The trial run had educational space, gallery space, sales space, performance space, and studio space. After 2005, the idea for Blue Ridge ArtSpace sat on a shelf until it was time to move in 2012. The current facility has all of the same spaces as the trial run, except performance and studio space. Mrs. Johnson hopes that in the future there will be an expansion to create these spaces and specifically studio space to rent out to artists as it was a big part of the original trial run.
In 1993 the Arts Council was the first organization to start a program where they placed the works of local artists throughout the community. The Arts Council would display these works at local businesses and made them available for sale on the spot. Profits from the art that was sold went directly to the artist and the Arts Council would get a percentage. This program won the Arts Council a Governors Business Award for being such a groundbreaking program. But in 2019 the program ended since local art can now be seen displayed at almost every local business in Watauga County.
The Watauga County Arts Council has achieved great things like Blue Ridge ArtSpace since Mrs. Johnson came on as the director. Concerning her hopes for the new executive director, Mrs. Johnson said, “I took this organization to places they never thought they were going to go. I want this new person to do the same thing. I want them to take this organization to new places I never thought it would go.”
When Mrs. Johnson retires, the Arts Council is working on establishing a new team structure that better divides up the workload throughout the organization. Mrs. Johnson said that being the executive director has been hard work but was a perfect fit for her:
“This job fit my life. It has truly been my life. I am the Arts Council, you know what I mean, that is who I am.”
Hopefully, when Mrs. Johnson retires Blue Ridge ArtSpace can find an executive director to fill her shoes and someone who’s life is a perfect fit for the job. Someone with only half the passion for their work as Mrs. Johnson would be perfect to continue Blue Ridge ArtSpaces’ work as a true community arts center.